This is a key moment. President Obama is about to make a hugely consequential decision regarding US troop commitments in Afghanistan, America’s longest war. The response of the progressive community should be a big factor in his consideration, since he will need the antiwar vote in next year’s election.
Obama should campaign on a platform of getting out of two quagmires, Iraq and Afghanistan, and investing the billions in savings here at home. If he doesn’t, he will sink deeper into those quagmires, worsening the recession that already imperils his presidency. By 2012, 100,000 troops could be returning, saving $200 billion. Here’s how: If Obama withdraws just half of the 100,000 troops in Afghanistan between now and 2012, the savings will be $50 billion per year. If he keeps his pledge to pull the remaining 47,000 troops from the forgotten war in Iraq, that would amount to another $50 billion per year. Even GOP deficit hawks might have difficulty posing as war hawks in the face of these figures. And after the killing of Osama bin Laden, Obama is immune from charges of being “soft on terror.”
The White House and the Pentagon have been waging an intense behind-the-scenes fight over Afghanistan, according to Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars. When the president announced his 30,000-strong troop surge in late 2009, few believed his vow that he would begin withdrawals this July. Some thought he was throwing a token concession to his progressive base. According to Woodward, the president did insist on an exit strategy with timelines—but they would have to come from Congress, because he had publicly opposed timelines.
Congressional antiwar strategists went to work. In February Representative Barbara Lee introduced a resolution before the Democratic National Committee supporting “significant and sizable” reductions in troops, with a transfer of funds to job creation. After initial objections by White House staffers, her proposal was green-lighted. The president himself said he wanted the cuts to be significant.
A bill by Representatives Jim McGovern and Walter Jones calling for an “accelerated” withdrawal, including a timeline, has increased its supporters from 162 last year to a whopping 204—including twenty-six Republicans—surprising the Beltway security establishment and mass media. The House action inspired twenty-one senators to sign a letter backing a “sizable and sustained” troop reduction.
Behind these developments was a souring public mood, partly shaped by thousands of grassroots peace activists. Already in January, a Gallup poll showed that 86 percent of Democrats, 72 percent of independents and 61 percent of Republicans favored a speeded-up withdrawal. Adding to the disquiet is a new Senate Foreign Relations Committee report exposing the corruption and lack of oversight that have wasted so much of our aid to Afghanistan.
Obama has at least four options: a token reduction of some 10,000 troops (the Pentagon’s preference); ending the surge by pulling out 30,000, leaving us where we were in 2009; more substantial cuts in the 40,000–70,000 range, as recommended by the Center for American Progress and the Afghanistan Study Group; and our preference, as well as that of the peace and justice movements: a rapid withdrawal of all troops and closure of bases by 2012.
Whatever option he chooses, Obama will have to woo back throngs of disaffected voters by 2012. When voices for peace become voters for peace, they matter.